Susan Gates writes a variety of books for younger readers under a variety of names.
Steve Pratt meets the author who has written about killer spiders, luminous rabbits and even a time-travelling toilet.
BEING shortlisted for a children’s book award posed a tricky problem for Susan Gates, who wrote a series of novels under the pseudonym Professor W C Flushing.
“I was invited to the ceremony and I thought what are they going to say when they don’t get this mad boffin who’s a toilet expert – he’s actually the world expert on public conveniences – and I turn up, a middle-aged woman. So I did not go,” explains the teacher-turned-writer, who lives in Crook, County Durham.
The Superloo series about a time-travelling toilet is only one of many strings to her bow.
She writes a variety of books for younger readers under a variety of names. She is currently SP Gates, author of the Animal Investigators series, featuring killer spiders, crazed gulls, a ghostly dog pack and a rogue wolf with supernatural strength.
She has also written under her maiden name, Robinson, and Susan Gates. Initials didn’t do JK Rowling any harm, although some of Gates’ readers do expect to meet a man. Thrillers and humorous novels are not considered the usual domain of the female writers.
The difference was brought home by a booksigning alongside popular children’s writer Jacqueline Wilson.
“Her queue was full of little girls with spangly books for her to sign and stretched three times round the theatre. I had this shuffling queue of embarrassed boys. They had scruffy little bits of paper, and some didn’t have paper at all and I had to sign their arms. One lifted his shirt and said, ‘will you sign my stomach?’,”
Despite having more than 100 books published, Gates’ profile remains low-key. Her daughter, Laura, who works in PR, is always telling her to promote herself more. “My kids go round bookshops and put my books at the front of the shelf.
“My daughter showed me what to do – she picked up one of my books and said very loudly, ‘this book is wonderful and has changed my life’. We watched and saw someone pick it up after hearing that.”
The audience, not the glory, is what matters to her. She has embraced a variety of styles and subjects, not to mention names, over the past 20 years. Plays, poems, books for teenagers, even picture books. “I’ve probably left something out there,” she apologises.
“I suppose not being known for one particular style might be a disadvantage, but you reach a load of kids by doing all different sorts of areas. That’s what’s important, isn’t it? – communication with kids.
“I like new projects, the technical challenge.
It’s nice to get out of your comfort zone and push yourself into new areas to see if you can do it. I got asked recently to rewrite the entire Trojan Wars in 3,000 words. If you want a technical challenge, that’s one.”
She taught for ten years in a comprehensive school in Weardale, during which time she had three children, before her first book was published.
“I’d been writing for a special needs class I taught because there weren’t any suitable books in those days. Oxford University Press (OUP) took it up, which just amazed me.”
After writing school books, she chanced her arm and sent a story to OUP and again it published it.
The Burnhope Wheel was a ghost story set in Weardale.
She’d never imagined being a writer. “I did not think it was ever possible because I come from an entirely non-bookish family,” she says. “I grew up on a council estate in Grimsby, a very nice council estate, but my mother thought books were essentially a waste of time.
She’d say go and do something useful, but I used to read all the time. I think a lot of girls in the Fifties did because there were not many avenues to release your imagination in those days.
“I was absolutely mad keen on American literature and science fiction. I have always liked thrillers, always read them in preference to girls’ books. I have ended up writing a lot of thrillers for boys.”
At 18, a year teaching in Malawi, Africa “changed me totally”, she says. “I was a very provincial girl from Grimsby and it was an amazing experience.
“I still write to people I used to teach. One series of books I’ve written has an African hero. So it has informed my life terrifically”.
Her husband, Phil Gates – who writes on wildlife for The Northern Echo – is a scientist, a biologist and geneticist at Durham University, and a handy source of information about scientific developments.
“A lot of my thrillers are based on science fact. Often people don’t realise because it is so bizarre.
One of the comedy books I wrote had a luminous rabbit in it – and scientists can actually do that, chickens and rabbits that glow in the dark,” she says.
“Another book, a teenage thriller, is about a girl who’s part of a medical experiment. They put genes in her embryo so she can see in the dark and attempt to make the perfect soldier. I thought that was terribly far-fetched, then you find out that US military scientists are trying to make soldiers invisible and walk through walls.”
SOME people fret that children don’t read as much as they used to, but there were not the choices available then, she points out.
“Now they have more outlets for their imagination.
My children played computer games, they read.
“Children have wonderfully diverse activities to attract them. It doesn’t worry me that they are not sitting there reading books all the time.”
She misses the children, but not the bureaucracy associated with teaching. Now she meets young readers through events in schools and libraries. She can pick their brains to find out what kinds of books they like and often gathers good ideas.
There is also nothing as harsh as a young critic. “Some are ecstatic and adore your books, others are quite stern. I had a girl write to me the other day who’d been through one of my books and counted every time I started a sentence with a conjunction. She told me her teacher had said they were not supposed to do that.”
Her approach now is to write a story to please herself and hope her young readers like it too.
“What else can you do?” she asks. “There are so many different kinds of kids out there. I just write the best story I can.”
■ Four Animal Investigators books – Wolf Man, Ghost Dogs, Red Eye and Killer Spiders – are published by Usborne, priced £5.99 and £6.99.